You hear the term “balance” used in describing wine all the time. When the components below and other variables such as fruitiness and oak are balanced, you’re naturally attracted to the wine without necessarily knowing why. It just tastes good! The same components, when too much or too little, throw off the balance of the wine, so that it’s not pleasing to the nose or the palate.
Brix – translates to the percentage of sugar in the grapes or wine. Most often the term is used to describe the sweetness of the grapes (and other fruits) as they ripen and at harvest. If we say the grapes are 24 degrees brix, it means they’re 24% sugar. We check the brix in our vineyards frequently as we approach harvest because we know that the sugar level will determine the amount of alcohol in the finished wine. In dry wine, generally, you’ll find the sugar at or below ½ of 1%, the human threshold.
The sugar is measured with a refractometer or hydrometer, which indicate the percentage of soluble solids (of which about 90% are sugars in ripe grapes) by weight in the liquid.
TA (Total Acidity) – or titratable (in reference to the method of measurement) acidity is a measure of the sum of all the organic acids in juice or wine and is another important consideration when deciding when to harvest. In healthy wine, the major acids are tartaric and malic, but all wines contain small quantities of citric, succinic, acetic, butyric, lactic and other organic acids. The titratable acid of juice ranges from 0.4 to 1.2 grams per 100 milliliters of liquid, so “grams per 100 ml” translates roughly to percentage. It’s difficult to compare reported acids from country to country, because in the United States, wine acidity is expressed as if all of the acids in the wine were tartaric acid, where in other countries other acids may be chosen as the measure.
Total acidity has considerable influence on your enjoyment of the wine. When it contains too much acid, it will be very tart or even sour tasting. When too little acid is present, the wine often lacks freshness and tastes flat. Generally, cold climate grapes are relatively high in acid, and warm climate grapes, lower.
pH – is a measure of the acid-to-alkaline balance in a solution, based on a scale of 1-14. We think of it as measuring the strength of the acidity, and it’s another major player in harvest decisions. 1 is acid, 14 is alkaline (water is 7). As with brix and TA, we start monitoring the pH of the grapes several weeks before harvest. The freshly picked grapes, and the resulting wine, are acidic, with pH values generally between 3 and 4. The pH influences flavors, and high pH wines are often flat tasting, may lack stability, have a dull color and smell “cooked”. Wines below 3.0 are excessively tart. A pH that’s low, but balanced, increases desirable flavor compounds, inhibits bacterial growth, and produces more and better red color. A low pH will also contribute to the wine’s longevity.
Tannin – comes from the grape skins, seeds, stems and to a lesser degree, barrels, when they’re new. Winemakers value tannin because it’s a natural preservative, an anti-oxidant that helps the wine to age gracefully. It also contributes to the texture and structure of the wine. Red wines are nearly always higher in tannin than whites because the reds are fermented with the grape skins and seeds, while whites are usually pressed to remove the skins and seeds prior to fermentation.
Winemakers prefer tannins from the skins to those extracted from the seeds or stems, because the skin tannins are less harsh. When our winemaker is out tasting in the vineyard as part of the pre-harvest regimen, he tastes for flavor, but he also chews the seeds to check for maturity. When bitten, the seed should break up, like Grape nuts cereal if it’s mature. If the seeds are still green and soft they can impart some very bitter, unpleasant tannins. Gentle handling in the winery will also minimize harshness.
Tannin in wine has almost no flavor, but it has a drying effect in your mouth, and can make your teeth feel furry, similar to the effect of a strong cup of tea. The tannin is the most noticeable when the wine is young. As time goes by, the tannins fall out of solution as a part of the sediment, an indicator that the wine is softening. As with the other components, balance is important for tannin. Too much tannin and the wine is harsh and chalky and may taste bitter. Too little, and the red wine lacks a chewy texture and the structure that we enjoy.
Alcohol (as related to wine) – also called ethyl alcohol or ethanol, is the product of the fermentation, during which yeast converts natural grape sugars to alcohol, heat and carbon-dioxide gas. A little over half the grape sugar converts to alcohol.
When the alcohol in the wine is balanced, it’s unnoticeable, yet still important to the senses. Alcohol gives wine body and a good “mouth feel”. Wines that are slightly too high in alcohol often seem sweet and have a hot after-taste. If an otherwise full bodied wine is too low in alcohol, it may feel light and unsatisfying on the palate.